Graceful spires point to the heavens, flying buttresses leap from the ancient walls, and gargoyles grimace at the bustling streets below. The Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is an icon of French Gothic architecture, and among the most famous buildings in the world.
The cathedral belongs to the age of King Philippe-Auguste, under whose reign the medieval kingdom of France was stabilized. Almost two hundred years passed between the laying of its foundations in 1160 and its completion in 1345. This beautiful cathedral—the embodiment of a new era—inspired an outpouring of new sacred music whose innovations would direct the course of Western musical tradition. Léonin and Pérotin are the leading figures of the ‘Ècole Notre Dame,’ a largely anonymous group of French polyphonic composers under the cathedral’s patronage.
Léonin, the first great Notre Dame composer, was choirmaster at the time the foundations of the cathedral were laid. His works are characterized by an imaginative and free-flowing style that made elaborate use of complex melismata, new melodic patterns, and rhythmic modes.
Pérotin may have been a pupil of Léonin, and flourished as a composer around 1200, after the time of Léonin’s death. The details of Pérotin’s life, including dates of birth and death, are uncertain. It is not even confirmed that he worked at Notre Dame, though he remains closely associated with the cathedral. Pérotin is greatly important to Western music for his contributions towards the development of three and four voice polyphony.